• Abbie Tibbott

Covid-19 and University Offers: Widening Participation?

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

I'm often found browsing the 'Family and Education' tab of BBC news. Widening participation for young people considering higher education is something that I'm passionate about, as I do not believe that the amount of money you (or more often than not, your family) has in their bank account should determine your chances of pursuing any form of higher education qualification you wish.

Socio-economic background, geographical location and the quality of schools are tied up in the statistics that are published regularly about who attends university. It seems to be inevitable that class is tied up in expected outcomes, but now Covid-19 has entered the mix, what can prospective students expect from universities?

For me to comment on the fiasco that was the results day nightmare of this past August needs a separate blog of its own, but it has definitely had a knock on effect on next year's arrangements. Although clarity on exams and grading in England is expected (hopefully) soon, some universities have already decided to lower entrance requirements by one grade. The University of Birmingham is the first, followed by the University of Surrey, which sparked the news article that piqued my interest.

First of all, I'm all for it. Teaching is definitely going to have impacted pupils' grades, as well as the ongoing pandemic's effect on mental health and well-being. I've definitely noticed a difference in my work ethic and motivation over the past few months, so I couldn't imagine the stress of being a young person trying to navigate all this uncertainty.

In my mind, my A level grades were not reflective of my academic ability, skills or work ethic, and the whole thing felt like two years wasted. I took up an unconditional offer for a BA in history from the University of Reading in late 2015, to attend the following September. I was told that my high GCSE grades, in combination with my poor school rankings made me eligible for a widening participation programme. I accepted the offer without too much doubt, because I liked the campus and also realised that everything was starting to go downhill in my schoolwork, and really wanted to secure a place at a university. I'm not ashamed to admit that I knew that I probably wouldn't perform as well as my predicted grades, but I did know that A level style teaching was not a good fit for me, and hoped higher education would rescue me a bit. I'm glad to say it has, so the university didn't waste its time on me!

However, if universities decide en masse to reduce their offers, or offer extra flexibility on results day, how much does a predicted grade truthfully separate students in terms of their ability? Predicted grades have long been criticised for their unfairness, and there are plenty of examples of students being given poor predicted grades, meaning they cannot apply to universities and be competitive for a place. There is a growing movement to do away with them all together, but that would mean a major shakeup of the system as we know it, and that doesn't seem something the government is giving serious thought to at this time.

There is also the moral question: if universities are lowering their grades, are they doing it to widen participation for students that may be unfairly impacted by the pandemic, or are they covering their backs, in order to make sure their courses are full and remain profitable? Lots of universities are in debt, and Brexit, combined with the pandemic, is predicted to impact international student numbers over the next few years. I don't think that it's unreasonable to to suggest that lowering grades will work in a university's favour.

If a university lowers an entry grade, does it devalue their courses? I'm not so sure. In my year, there was a mix of unconditional, people who met their offer and people who had missed their offer but still kept their place. I don't think it devalues what a university offers compared to another, as it's important to recruit students from a wide range of backgrounds if a university claims to be diverse and inclusive. No route into higher education is the 'right' route, so it makes sense that there are different avenues. At university itself, everyone has the same work to do, so it's not something I have been particularly aware of. I don't think my unconditional offer gained me access to a course which was too difficult for me, or an institution that was too 'high-brow' for me.

I'm sure some people would argue that predicted grades exist to rank students in order of ability, so admitting a student unconditionally is not fair on the 'average applicant' who had the pressure of performing well in exams in order to gain entry. It's a difficult conversation, and I know people who fall on both sides of the coin. I'm not a big fan of the 'everyone's a winner' mentality that is preached at the lower ages of mainstream education, as I think it sets a false precedent for when a student grows older and has to compete for university places or jobs. It sets out a false sense of security, but is important for instilling motivation and a good work ethic into children to make sure they progress at a good rate. Predicted grades therefore have been used historically to rank children in a school on expected output, often taking data from GCSE performance or the average school performance. This is of course exclusionary to many bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds whose grades will be substantially better than the average in their area. By not awarding them higher predicted grades than the school average, the school is doing them a disservice, preventing them from aspiring to gain places at universities with the highest grade requirements. The pandemic will do nothing but exacerbate these disparities in the system, so I worry for young people that despite the enticement of a lower offer, the impact of the pandemic on their education, plus the under-prediction by schools will prove another barrier to them entering the right universities for their ability, while their advantaged peers access those spaces almost by default.

I hope that Surrey and Birmingham are the first of many universities to make a publicised effort to remove some stress from students this year in England. The government will find it difficult to accurately measure and compensate how much individual students have been disadvantaged during this period, so this gesture will go some way to bridging the gap. I don't think that this is purely a marketing ploy by universities to recruit more students, but I do recognise that they have to bring in money in order to further their aims as an institution. As long as students are supported in their learning, and have a satisfactory experience, I see no reason that universities should not offer more unconditional or lowered offers this year.

Barriers to higher education have been compounded by the pandemic. The government's handling of A level grading and results needs a thorough review, but for now, it's important that universities do the best they can to mitigate the damage, and welcome more students .

To read the article mentioned here, visit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-55112800

UCAS releases regular statistics about applicants using their system: https://www.ucas.com/undergraduate-statistics-and-reports